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Some Film-Emotions and a Moral

from At half-past eight: essays of the theatre, 1921-1922 (1923)

by James Agate
(1877-1947 )

THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE Apocalypse, taken in conjunction with some recent multipopulous films, suggests that this vast industry has at last found its artistic feet. Just as, after a time, the motor-car designer got away from the idea of the horse, and discovered the shape of a mechanically propelled vehicle to be implicit in its motive power, so the latest film-producers are finding that pantomime and a flat projection have given them a medium independent of, and insubservient to, the theatre. It was recognized from the first, if not by the producer at least by the onlooker, that if the screen was to be an art at all it must do other than hold the camera up to a stageful of dumb actors; the difficulty was to discover the essential difference. The "cowboy" films had not got beyond pointing the lens at the circus, while those grandiose displays of passion, degenerate dramas of the fatty heart, pantagraphic enlargements of the comedies of Tom Robertson, were obviously not more than the old obsession of the theatre at its most burdensome. And with the enormous growth of popularity and the use of the largest halls came the feeling, again on the part of the onlooker, that the medium was capable of wider scope than the elaboration of the millionaire-magnate's passion for the typist whose fiancée was falsely accused of robbing the safe. Of this feeling the producer became, at length, dimly aware.

   When Reinhardt, in The Miracle, sent his company of nuns up-stage as though he were flushing a covey of white-winged birds, he did more than increase the effectiveness obtained by a single figure; he translated emotion from the particular into the general. When I first read of these "super films," how Intolerance had cost a million dollars — or was it pounds? — how the "set" for the chariot races in The Queen of Sheba covered one hundred and fifty acres, how a single scene of Theodora contained fourteen thousand actors — frankly, I was inclined to scoff. This, I thought, could be but producer's vulgarity, the old desire to stagger the universe and catch its pence. Then when I saw the films I realized that, behind the ostentation, lay more than a display of numbers. It was Reinhardt's idea all over again, the conferring of unity upon a crowd, the transformation of a rabble into an entity. Of course, so big a thing as this was not to be achieved at once, nor without mistakes. The story of Theodora was uncommonly like the novelette of a kitchen maid who should be afflicted with sentimental elephantiasis; the fourteen thousand charmers were too small individually, and so not more impressive that the little people who stroll about at the foot of an architect's elevation. The theme of The Queen of Sheba was that of an overgrown feuilleton with a philandering Solomon for hero. Here again the crowd, at rest, was not more significant than a photograph of Mr. Henry Ford's work people during the dinner hour. In action as when, for instance, it leaped the arena walls and swarmed at the heels of the scudding chariots, it took on a quality which no crowd in the theatre can give, yet which remained decorative, and not more than decorative. But in that other film, Intolerance, the armies of Cyrus and Belshazzar had swept the screen not only with the purely embellishing quality of the passage-work in the overtures to "Oberon" and "Euryanthe," but also with something of the fateful implications of the Fifth Symphony.

   So Far I cannot claim that the innovation was really more than spectacular. No stage-manager, however clever, can convey a mass emotion to which the audience cannot, in the nature of things, be susceptible. Belshazzar and Cyrus lived too long ago for us to take sides. Whereas the emotion of The Four Horsemen is very recent, almost too recent for artistic purposes. (One of the sub-titles suggested very tactfully that there, in that other country, soldiers were arming in the full conviction and consciousness of right. The fact remains that I should not invite a guest from that country to witness this film. It sears the mind with old memories that were better forgotten, and reopens old wounds that were better healed. Probably this is unavoidable. You cannot air up national emotion and take only the gilt-edged, sentimental prettiness.) I do not want to write too loosely or impracticably of this "mass emotion." Obviously, it cannot meander about unshackled, magnoperating in the void. It must be harnessed to some kind of story. This, in The Four Horsemen, is just a trifle mechanical. The invention of an old rancher of the Argentine, whose two daughters marry, one a Frenchman and the other a German, is an unnecessarily elaborate device for getting the two races into the most intimate of all conflicts. It was managed much more simply in Les Oberle and the Burgomaster of Stilemonde; but it may be that the producers were not aiming at economy. And perhaps there was no reason why they should so aim; there is virtue in extravagance as well as in cheese-paring. The story, as it is told up to the outbreak of the war, is good, unsubtle, yet not vulgar. As soon, however, as the drum-taps speak, we know that we are to listen to a more poignant language.

   One felt curiously divided on this matter of a personal core to a world upheaval. At times it seemed absurdly trivial; at other times one reflected that people do not, actually, visualize events in the mass, but only through the medium of their personal outlook. I have already said that the story is not vulgar; I want to say now that it is of common application. This tale of a Francesca enamoured of a Paolo and married to a Malatesta whom she does not love, this story of a conflict between eager passion and duty to a stricken husband is as old as the hills, and has never known solution. But war, too, is old and has that same element of conflicting right. You take away all dignity from those years if you deny the German breast the same flame as that which animated the French. I do not know of any film in which the actual and the symbolical have been better interwoven. To bring those four figures — Conquest, War, Famine, and Death — upon the screen and keep silliness at arm's length was, in itself, a triumph, whilst the implications of the last few moments required and obtained very delicate handling. Sometimes in a big picture the smallest things are the most effective; a French flag borne by a peasant in pitiful defence of his village caught me by the throat.

   Yet this film, like so many others, has the annoying trick of leading the spectator right up to the brink of intellectual interest and then fobbing him off. It gives him a glimpse of those sinister personages typical of the brain of the hostile command, and immediately switches him off to the consideration of a boor in his bath. There is an exquisite moment when the weary troops come to the fountain to drink. The mind wants to linger here, to bait, as it were, with these jaded beasts of the inhuman burden. But alas! elsewhere there is fooling toward, which we are not allowed to miss. The screen is still shy of absolute beauty. And this for two reasons. Either the producers of pictures are afraid of their audiences, or they do not know beauty when they see it. Both suppositions are, I think, true. A friend of mine, a considerable artist, who was asked to write a scenario for an all-British film of film-producers, was offered a free hand in every respect but one. There was to be no subtlety. "Any muck you like so long as the situations are strong. Plenty of heart interest, but no sex stuff. Above all, no subtlety. They won't stand for it!"

   "Sit for it, you mean," answered my friend.

   Then, raising his voice, "And you can keep your all-British commission, Mr. Hiram K. Meschügge!"

   These American gentlemen at present in control of the recreative provender of the great mass of the people, wielding a power for aesthetic good or evil equal, probably, to that of all the printing presses in the world, are amazingly ignorant.

   "Say," said one of these unlettered magnates after he had been watching Lucien Guitry throughout four acts of Pasteur, "say, who's that guy?"

   One would despair for the future of any art so largely in the hands of these tasteless American producers if it were not that, up to the present, they undoubtedly lead. (I write this without knowledge of the Norwegian and Swedish films which, I am told, are extraordinarily good.) Sometimes behind the horn spectacles of our cousins I think I detect faint glimmerings that the world may hold scope for other activities besides stooping to pick up the almighty dollar. It is as though our cousins were harking back to some word or thing remembered from a former existence, yet of which the meaning has long been loft. "Beauty!" they cry, "that's what the darned thing was called." And they proceed to give "beauty" publicity, whether their work possesses it or not. Of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse they announce: "Shakespeare in Music; Wagner in Pictures; Michael Angelo in Words." C'est gigantesque! as Flaubert used to observe of some bourgeois enormity.

   There is an admirable moment in Theodora in which the Empress, stabbing Marcellus, drives the dagger home with her shoulder blades, and thus forces the weight of her body to do blindly that which she was afraid to watch her hand accomplish. At once the screen flashes:

"And on the morrow
Came Theodora to the villa
After a sleepless night."

   This, the lingo of the patent-medicine advertisement, is, I suppose, "Michael Angelo in words."

   In Nero, at the Philharmonic Hall, I found no trace of emotion except that which one had thought safely buried with Wilson Barrett. The film is our old friend, The Sign of the Cross, all over again. History repeating itself, a matinée is to be given for the benefit of the clergy, but not, presumably, to the ultimate loss of the management. Doubtless it is hoped that some bishop will get him on his hind legs and bray about this film, some rural dean give forth ruridecanal encomiums. Alas, for the purposes of boosting, that Mr. Gladstone is not alive! Under the cloak of religion Nero makes considerable display of sensuality. How, it may be objected, can a writer give virtue its sad meed unless he shows vice in its brightest colours? (Sir Hall Caine used constantly to find himself in this convenient difficulty.) And therefore while the Christian maidens are of a flickering innocence bordering on the imbecile the pagan roués must perambulate Rome with the frenzy of stags in the rutting season, their eyeballs bursting from their sockets. The story, says the programme, "agrees with the account of Nero's life as related by," among others, Suetonius! This is like saying that Little Arthur's ingenuous account of our own Edward the Second tallies with Marlowe. Nero is a case for the expert in psychosis, not for the scenario-monger. He is essentially an improper hero for the screen.

   If we must present Nero in the theatre — to which before an educated audience there can be no objection — then let us have the Sadist, the man whom the Nonconformist conscience would undoubtedly call mad, and the Antichrist of Christian tradition. But let us also have the pupil of Seneca, the emperor, and the artist. How good or bad an artist Nero was can never be established. Personally I am inclined to think he would have been very much at home in Chelsea. Qualis artifex pereo shows that he was at least preoccupied with matters other than sensuality and butchery. And in coming to any necessarily preposterous and essentially pernickety judgment of a Great Man, whose greatness in the Wildean sense — Jonathan, not Oscar — lingered in the popular imagination for ten centuries after his death, let us, for the sake of common sense, remember the time.

   I think it is Des Esseintes in Huysmans's novel who complains that the projects which a Nero would have carried out must, in our more squeamish day, come to iniquitous fulfilment in the brain alone. Given the absolute power of a Nero, Mr. Pussyfoot Johnson would, I doubt not, prove himself the greater tyrant. Of all the great men of the past Nero is he whom I should most like to meet. Away with your pale Emersons, Lincolns, and the whole anaemic caboodle. Better for a race to be destroyed by an emperor with blood in him than to have prohibition thrust upon it by some sanctimonious economist with ginger-beer in his veins.

   The Nero of the present film is a compromise false equally to virtue as to vice. The French actor, Gretillat, gores the torso and the jowl cleverly enough; de Max would have added the hermaphroditic complex, the brains, and the descent from Augustus. But the whole atmosphere of the picture suggests, not the decadence which was the Eternal City, but the tawdriness which is the modern Palais de Danse — a Rome too obviously built in a day.

   Why, I wonder, must all screen heroines be feeble-minded? The heroine of The Game of Life, at the Weft End Cinema, is blind from birth, and believes that everybody else is blind too. Her world is one in which a man must touch a thing before he can know it, and if he would speak of an elephant, must first produce one. A student of Braille, she does not know the word "sight," and is confounded when some careless fellow says that he can see the stars. "What is 'see'?" she lisps.

   Smilin' Through, at the Marble Arch Pavilion, is feeble, pretentious, and lachrymose. A bride who has been shot by a jealous lover during the wedding ceremony — which the producer places in the back garden — spends the next fifty years or so "on the other side," hovering about in an expectant bridal gown. When her spirit is not hovering it is reincarnated in a flesh-and-blood niece, her sister's child. The sister also "goes over" later on, and the two indulge in sentimental colloquy. Watching this rubbish I thought regretfully of that play of Mr. Laurence Housman in which a departed Victorian lady wires from earth to an elder sister who has preceded her — the address is that of a distinctly anthropomorphic Heaven — "Railway accident. Arriving 4.30." "I expected you earlier," says the elder lady, looking at the clock and pecking her sister's cheek. "The train was late," replies the younger woman simply. Oh, for just one little breath of Mr. Housman's irony, or even of his common sense, to blow away these screen absurdities! "Does irony go out with life?" asks Lamb. Alas! that it goes out or ever we enter the grave, as soon, indeed, as we set foot in the cinema! Miss Norma Talmadge dies from a gunshot wound with less show of emotion than one of Messrs. Lyons's waitresses exhibits on receiving an order for a cup of tea. According to the programme this actress "reveals a spiritual power that goes far beyond acting." This is nonsense. Miss Talmadge smiles prettily and weeps prettily; that is all. And in this film she bears the peculiarly detestable name of "Moonyeen!" The sub-titles and accompanying music are a very nightmare of banality. Tosti in pictures, Miss Dell in music, and in words that New Oxford Street sculptor whose effigies proclaim Somebody's Sustentative Belts — that, I must think, is more nearly the truth about such films as this.

   It was pleasant, by way of contrast, to sit in quiet enjoyment at the Stoll Picture Theatre, Kingsway, of some unpretentious domestic pieces, including General John Regan, with Mr. Milton Rosmer. There was also a magnificent picture of rival pirate gangs cutting each other's throats in a sunken submarine. This was a fine example of the proper function of the screen which, when it is not magnoperating in mass emotion, is to supplement, not supplant, the theatre, and to show aspects of life and drama that defy Drury Lane. "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!" should be inscribed over all shadowy portals. Cataracts and hurricanes are the thing here, with incident piled on incident. Let the film-actor leave that little matter of psychology to the Duses who, I dare swear, would make a poor show of their minds' insides at fathom five, or thereabout.

   "Stroheim is no more to be shunned as a contribution to art than Hogarth's 'Rake's Progress,' Balzac's 'Comédie Humaine,' Dante's 'Inferno,' or Ibsen's 'Ghosts.'" Again the giant enormity. The moral of Foolish Wives, which is "Written, Directed by, and Featuring Stroheim" — what a lot these "literary" producers are! — is that wealthy American ladies should not, whilst at Monte Carlo, pay midnight visits to Russian Counts living at the top of high towers unprovided with fire escapes, whose jealous maidservants are waiting to destroy them with petrol. There is no objection to the screen being didactic; it had better be that than pseudo-psychological. Remarking one day to a companion upon the close attention which a film audience gave to a performance of the middle and last movements of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, I observed that the piece was probably new to them. "Not only the piece," answered my friend, "it's the first time they've heard the fiddle!" There was a grain of truth in this. Dotted about the house there may be a Cabinet Minister or two, but collectively the cinema audience is totally uneducated. They gape before the screen as the thirteenth-century playgoer gaped before the morality-play. And Foolish Wives is a poor morality. A woman who visits a chance acquaintance at midnight with ninety thousand francs loose in her pocket is, if she be innocent-minded, too big a fool to be worth our while. Or say she is worth the police-court missionary's while, and not Balzac's, Ibsen's, or Dante's. Such a woman becomes interesting as soon as she is shown to be not innocent but aware, teased by her passions and their willing dupe. A woman of thirty-five who allows herself to be decoyed, even at Monte Carlo, and pays for her rape into the bargain, is an intolerable fool who deserves no better fate. Let her put down her ninety thousand francs in the knowledge that Russian Counts are an expensive luxury, and we should at once leave yawning and begin to attend. Such a film wouldn't be "moral." I am not concerned with that; it is conceivable that it might be true. Whereas the present film is neither true nor moral. It is untrue to suggest that any normal woman can be such a fool as this victim of Stroheim. It is untrue to life to suggest that rape, sentimental and physical, and nothing but rape, fills the mind of the average woman to the exclusion of everything else. Foolish Wives is, in this respect, almost uncannily immoral.

   I wish people would get it out of their heads that a film is made respectable by the fad that the villain comes to a disastrous end. Stroheim's fate is no worse than that of hundreds of thousands during the past ten years. He was a professional seducer whose seductions were extraordinarily successful. By seduction the fellow fulfilled his being and was happy. To make the film moral he should have been unhappy. Stroheim's end was purely accidental; whereas the fate of many a decent, honourable, blameless fellow during the war was quite perfectly inevitable. A moral film, I repeat, would have shown Stroheim made unhappy by his vice.

   Here again we are up against a piece of cant too generally accepted. The reader may remember an old picture, "The Child: and What He will Become." On the left of the picture is the head of a boy, before whom lies the choice between good and evil. To the right are parallel lines of heads of which the upper series represents School, College, Industry, Success, and Honourable Old Age; the lower Playing Truant, the Streets, Vice, Misery and Wretchedness, Beggary and Despair. Thus the Idle and the Industrious Apprentice. The terms of reference in both are purely financial. If the little fellow in the modern daub had been born with ten thousand a year and a strong constitution, I imagine he could have run the whole gamut of vice to a dishonourable and happy old age. Why cannot we look the truth in the face and realize that virtue and only virtue makes virtuous people happy, and equally that vice and only vice makes vicious people happy. Contrariwise, that while vice makes the virtuous unhappy, virtue makes the vicious uncomfortable. You cannot, of course, make any sort of film out of virtue. Virtuous people, like happy countries, have no history. How, it is important to ask, can we make a moral and yet true film out of vice? By making the vicious unhappy? That would not be true, as we have seen; the best we can do is to make them poor. But Stroheim wasn't poor. By his single eyeglass he made more money in five minutes than a dozen men can accumulate in a dozen lifetimes lived after the precepts of Samuel Smiles. The producer or scenario-monger who would make a film about Stroheim must choose between that which is untrue and moral, and that which is true and immoral. Foolish Wives, as usual in the cinema, makes the worst of both worlds, and is both untrue and immoral. The simple, sobering verity is that in this world vice is its own reward, and often a very good one. I defy any film-producer to put that on the screen and make it look proper.

   This film is really a highly amusing masque, the incidents are exciting, the photography is first-class. Stroheim himself is a fine actor, the personification of Junkerdom, the Prussian pur sang, and no Slav. "A man you will love to hate," runs the announcement, with an eye to the little scullery maid. For myself I should hate not to love Stroheim; he is so well acted. The film has been cut stupidly. This Don Juan worthy of Hogarth, Balzac, Dante, Ibsen — and why not Byron, Baudelaire, and Mr. Gilbert Frankau? — is bundled into a sewer in less time than a competent actor can say "A rat!" Whereas the impersonation has been powerful enough for me to want a sub-title which shall proclaim

   "And now I'll do't: and so he goes to . . . hell!"